The massively popular social media app TikTok is struggling to assuage lawmakers’ concerns over its ties to the Chinese government and allegations that it is amassing data on U.S. users for Beijing.

The company has sought to beef up its lobbying efforts and grow its U.S. content moderation team, but the criticism of Tiktok only intensified Tuesday when lawmakers ripped the company for declining to send a representative to a hearing on tech companies’ ties with China.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, lambasted TikTok, which was represented by an empty chair at the witness table.  

{mosads}“TikTok should answer … to the millions of Americans who use their product with no idea of its risks,” Hawley, one of the Republican Party’s top tech critics, said during his opening remarks. 

“They should have been here today,” Hawley continued. “They must … appear under oath to tell the truth about their company, about its ambitions, and what they’re doing with our data.” 

TikTok said it was unable to provide a “witness who would be able to contribute to a substantive discussion” on such “short notice.”

“We appreciate Sen. Hawley’s invitation,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement. “We remain committed to working productively with Congress as it looks at how to secure the data of American users, protect their privacy, promote free expression, ensure competition and choice among internet platforms, and preserve U.S. national security interests.”

TikTok was given a week’s notice for the hearing, a source familiar with the invitation told The Hill. The subcommittee was seeking testimony from an executive who could speak to the app’s operations in the U.S. 

The hearing came at a sensitive moment for the 2-year-old social media app, which has seen its popularity skyrocket over the past six months. TikTok and its Chinese-market counterpart, Douyin, had 625 million monthly active users in August, according to app analytics company App Annie, and the short-form video platform has remained the most-downloaded app on Apple and Google’s stores for months. 

That growing popularity has brought a wave of scrutiny from policymakers and regulators, as well as top rival Facebook, which sees TikTok as a serious competitor.

Chinese-owned firm Bytedance bought the U.S. app in 2017 and rebranded the short video platform as TikTok the following year. With more than 110 million downloads in the U.S. last year alone, the platform is trying to build out its American roots to handle the brightening spotlight. TikTok US has grown to encompass hundreds of employees and several offices.  

But in the past week alone, reports have emerged that a secretive federal panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, has launched a national security review of ByteDance’s acquisition of And The Washington Post published a stunning investigation on Tuesday revealing that U.S. TikTok employees had been asked to censor videos that did not comport with the Chinese parent company’s views on acceptable speech.   

“The idea that TikTok is not sharing any data, is not taking direction from Beijing, that just does not appear to be true,” Hawley told reporters on Tuesday.  

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday called on the company to stop collecting data on American children.

“TikTok is China’s best detective—surreptitiously collecting and sharing user data, tracking American tweens and teenagers, and manipulating children’s online purchases,” she said in a statement.

TikTok has been ramping up its Washington presence to push back.

Last month, the company announced it had hired a prominent law firm, K&L Gates, to help develop a U.S.-specific vetting approach for videos posted on the platform.

“TikTok recently announced plans to form a committee of outside experts to help ensure that TikTok is well prepared to serve our users and community effectively and responsibly,” the platform’s U.S. general manger Vanessa Pappas, a seven-year veteran of Google’s YouTube, wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary subcommittee shared with The Hill on Tuesday. 

Former Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who work with K&L Gates, will participate in that committee, though they did not respond to requests for comment this week. 

In June, TikTok also brought on a high-powered corporate lobbying firm, Covington & Burling, to speak for the platform on Capitol Hill. According to federal lobbying disclosures, ByteDance paid the firm $110,000 for five lobbyists to “provide advice on technology policy issues.” 

But TikTok’s repeated assurances that it wants to work with lawmakers have fallen largely on deaf ears. Some of Capitol Hill’s top China hawks are drilling into the social media platform over whether it shares information or acts at the behest of Beijing. 

Its decision to turn down the invitation on Tuesday only intensified that scrutiny.

“TikTok’s unwillingness to testify before Congress only underscores Senator Cotton’s concerns that the company is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party and will not secure the rights and privacy of its American users,” a spokesperson for Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told The Hill. 

Cotton, alongside Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), raised those concerns in a letter to the intelligence community last month. In the letter to acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, the senators questioned whether the app “cooperate[s] with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.” 

Schumer’s involvement brought new weight to the issue, signaling bipartisan interest in the national security concerns around the Chinese-owned app.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee who typically walks a finer line on concerns around Chinese tech, told The Hill that he believes TikTok “ought to appear to answer questions before Congress.”

“There are credible concerns that TikTok’s moderation efforts reflect the interests and dictates of the Chinese government — even as TikTok seeks to grow in western markets,” Warner said in a statement. “Democratically elected governments are justifiably scrutinizing the opaque business practices of a range of technology platforms — TikTok is no exception.” 

The social media platform further inflamed tensions when TikTok representatives backed out of a scheduled meeting with Hawley’s office last week. Toward the end of October, a group of TikTok lobbyists asked for a meeting to discuss Hawley’s concerns about the app — but canceled the meeting hours before it was scheduled to occur last Wednesday, the source said.   

TikTok is the largest Chinese social media platform to ever gain prominence in the U.S., a contentious position with the world’s two largest economies already in a high-stakes trade war. 

Kara Frederick, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security, pointed out that Chinese companies are required to cooperate with “state intelligence work,” opening the door for ByteDance to be compelled to the Chinese Communist Party.

There is so far little evidence to show that the Chinese government has any access to the data collected from U.S. users by the TikTok app. 

Hawley on Tuesday declined to call for ByteDance to spin off TikTok, a scenario that experts say could happen if the company decides the pressure from lawmakers is too much of a headache.

But Hawley made it clear lawmakers want more answers.

“I think we need to take a hard look here at TikTok’s privacy practices, their data practices,” Hawley said. “For now, getting the facts out is absolutely critical.” 

Tags Charles Schumer Jeff Denham Joseph Maguire Josh Hawley Mark Warner Marsha Blackburn Tom Cotton

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